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Legal Battle Brews to Save African Penguins from Potential Extinction

Published March 25, 2024
2 months ago

In a move that has rattled conservationist feathers, South African Environment Minister Barbara Creecy’s efforts to save the African penguin have been met with a legal challenge by two prominent South African bird conservation groups. Filing court papers last week at the Pretoria High Court, BirdLife South Africa and SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), represented by the Biodiversity Law Centre, sought an urgent review of Creecy’s controversial decision.

The center of the dispute is the Environment Minister’s policy to maintain a ban on commercial fishing for anchovy and sardine, the penguins’ primary food source, in areas close to important breeding colonies. This ban was put in place in August 2023 for at least the next ten years, affecting regions previously designated 'Interim Closure' areas. Surprisingly, this policy has garnered criticism from conservationists rather than acclaim.

The scientists warn that if policy implementation continues the current trend, we may witness the extinction of African penguins in the wild by the year 2035. This critically endangered seabird species has witnessed a staggering 97% decrease in its population, with less than 10,000 breeding pairs remaining—a number that plummets even further when considering just the South African share of the population.

Key to the conservationists’ argument is the outcome of the Island Closure Experiment (ICE), which ran from 2008 to 2021. ICE tested the hypothesis that specific fishery closures could alleviate the food competition faced by African penguins. The findings appeared to support the idea of targeted fishing closures significantly contributing to penguin survival by improving prey availability.

Despite this, the conservationists perceive Creecy's decision as arbitrary and lacking biological meaning, deviating from recommendations given by an international expert panel appointed by Creecy herself. The panel was tasked with re-assessing the scientific grounding for fishing ground closures near penguin breeding sites. Their recommendations included defining a valuable area for African penguins and delineating conservation areas through an appropriate trade-off mechanism that would benefit both the penguins and the fishing industry.

However, the minister’s re-imposition of the old 'Interim' closed areas has created an impasse, leaving no room for a new agreement between the conservationists and the fishing industry. Condemning the decision, Dr. Alistair McInnes of BirdLife South Africa claims it might signal the end for the African penguin.

This unprecedented legal challenge is a crucial moment in South African environmental law, emphasizing the government's duty to prevent species extinction and championing scientifically informed decision-making in conservation. Conservationists anxiously anticipate the case’s outcome, as it could set a legal precedent for endangered species protection in the country.

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